Monday, April 02, 2007

Why It's Hard to Get Rid of Old Ideas

Dunbar and his colleagues at Dartmouth have been studying why it's hard for people to overcome their misconceptions. Their work had built on earlier studies that had found that University students, faculty, and staff, were held onto misconceptions about the origin of seasonal change (perhaps acquired in grade school, junior high, or high school), despite formal coursework in planetary motion or direct instruction with a videotape. Excerpt: "Why did the video, which was supposed to address the misconceptions, have no significant effect on the students? Interestingly both students' responses and their explanations, indicate that they did not encode the relevant information that was inconsistent with their theory."

When fMRI studies were done of students slipping into this same mistake, researchers found that information that fit within a person's preconceived ideas ("plausible") were more readily committed to memory, while contradictory ideas ("implausible") received less attention.

It underscores how important it is not to teach students incorrect concepts while trying to simplify concepts for younger children. It also highlights the importance for verifying knowledge (Socratic inquiry, testing) in order to guarantee mastery of novel concepts.

The tenacious grip of old ideas is a common dilemma of inventors and innovators of various sorts. No wonder, individual turn to transdisciplinary experiences, discussions with outsiders, even dreams to see problems from a different light.

Do naive theories ever go away?
Brain-based mechanisms involving complex causal thinking fmri pdf
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Old Dogs and New Tricks

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  1. So what happens in our brains when we actually do change our minds? How does the process of unlearning happen?

  2. This is fascinating. Its one thing to have a personal recognition of the difficulty of unlearning something, entirely another to see a study demonstrate it and show where it happens in the brain!

    I just recently discovered your blog and I'm getting so much out of your posts.

  3. Rob Sperry12:05 AM

    Were you able to obtain the Zig book on Direct Instruction and Project Follow through?

    One of the central tentes of his method is that correcting a mistake is an order of magnitute harder than learning something right the first time. In case you missed it this passage is a good example of the detail they put into thier work.

    Also, if you have any strong evidential negative information..I need it quick.. because I am laying down some very positive pathways about this DI stuff :)

    "So, when we were designing model templates like the one for red, Doug conducted at least one experiment for every detail of the template. Doug did a total
    of ten studies on the template for red. One addressed whether the dynamic sequence is superior to one that presents a series of static examples. For this study, FT-Chap6.doc January 10, 2007, KF © 2007, S. Engelmann Page 11 of 62 40 preschoolers were taught the concept of "diagonal." Those in the "dynamic change" group passed the test of generalizing the concept to unique examples in 20.6 trials. Children in the "non-dynamic change" group required 56.4 trials. So the empirical evidence confirmed the logical analysis.

    Doug did three large studies that addressed the number of differences between positive and negative examples. One study involved five groups of preschoolers. All children received the same positive examples. (A positive example of red is red; a negative, not-red.) Each group, however, received unique negative examples. For one group, positives differed in only one way from the negative (like those in the sequence for red). For the next group, the negative
    examples differed in two ways (which, for the example of red, would be a difference in color and possibly in the size of the circle). The next group had negatives that differed in three ways from the positives (possibly not red, larger, and oval, not
    round) and so forth to the fifth and final condition, which had only positives, no negatives.

    As the logical analysis predicted, the children who received negatives that differed in only one way from positives outperformed all the other groups, and the poorest group was the one that was shown no negatives. Note that the vast
    majority of traditional teaching demonstrations do not have any negatives, or, if they do, they are greatly different from the positives in an attempt to make the learning "easier."

    Doug also did two studies involving the juxtaposition of the examples (which example follows which example). The experiment configured the same set of examples different ways. The format suggested by the analysis produced the best
    learning outcome.

    Doug also did studies on the presence of irrelevant features, and studies on working variations and wording consistency. The results of all the experiments upheld what the logical analysis predicted.

    These again are picky details, but that’s what makes the difference—saving ten trials here, thirty there, avoiding inducing a misconception that will later require reteaching. The result is acceleration and greatly increased confidence of children that they will learn what the teacher tries to teach."

  4. christy - The process of unlearning seems to require first "attention" to the mistake. It seems that our brains are designed to recognize patterns, so that with time, we may miss new information because we are seeing only what we expect to see. I would think that more direct attention to the popular misconceptions or direct questioning (e.g. Socratic) would also improve the likelihood of learning.

    Hi rob! I did look a little at the Zig book - and while he makes some worthwhile observations, it is mixed with dogmatism and some gross errors (e.g. the mistaken notion that dyslexia is due to inadequate teaching). Forgive me if I do him an injustice- but this is what I remember when I burrowed into his sites. That was awhile ago!

    Thank you for your additional remarks re: the importance of positive and negative teaching. I think this is an important point, but one that also requires some art to deliver. Some students may become baffled by presentations of right and wrong information (and confuse them) - therefore the best teaching scenario is a good understanding of what the student does and doesn't "get", an awareness of working memory limitations, and as you said, positive examples and checks for mistakes.